Packing back-to-school lunches -- Chicago style

Even though the official first day of school is still weeks away for my kids, back-to-school preparations are in full swing at our house. Haircuts? Check. New shoes? Check. Backpacks? Lunch bags? New school supplies? Check. Check. Check.

This time of year, I am always trying to organize and simplify because I know how busy life gets once school gets going. A big part of my attempt to streamline our life (and our stuff) is the daily lunch packing ritual.

I know that the school lunch situation is different for everyone (some versions being much less appealing than others). Many of my mama friends use first-rate school lunch services like Gourmet Gorilla. That's not an option at the schools my kids attend (but I might be tempted to use it if it was).

At our house, I pack the school lunches -- and I actually really enjoy doing it (most of the time). I like to know what my kids are (or aren't) eating. I also freely admit that I like to put a sappy, handwritten note in their lunch boxes -- just to say hi mid-day.

Packing school lunches on a daily basis requires the right supplies -- both in terms of food and packaging. More and more, schools are moving towards green, "no waste" lunch policies (including the schools my children attend). That means nothing ends up in the trash -- no paper napkins, no disposable baggies, no plastic spoons. Instead, parents are encouraged to use cloth napkins, reusable silverware, sandwich and snack pouches.

This year, when I was preparing to stock up on the supplies that I will need to pack lunches throughout the year, I realized that many of the best products available were made or sold by Chicago-based companies. That's right -- you can purchase the supplies you need to pack green school lunches while also supporting local businesses. Here are the products you need to know about so you can pack a green school lunch -- Chicago style. 
Litter Free Lunch. This company was started by two Naperville moms who are passionate about reducing waste in schools and at home. The super versatile Go Green Trio includes a reusable sandwich bag, snack bag, and cotton napkin. All items can be machine or line washed. You can order from the website or pick one up at Whole Foods. I love the simple look of this set -- and the fact that you can throw it in the washing machine.

Reuseit.com. Since 2003, this Chicago-based online business has offered customers reusable items as a way to reduce consumption and waste. Reuseit.com has an extensive range of reusable items -- including plenty of lunch options. I am particularly fond of the Reuseit sandwich and snack bags. Both items are built to withstand the wear-and-tear from daily use by rambunctious kids tearing into their lunches.

Another great option from Reuseit.com is the Gel-Cool Bento Boxes. These cute-as-can-be boxes hold kid-sized portions of cut or fruit or veggies and the lid contains a gel that keeps food chilled after it comes out of the fridge. My kiddos found the latches on this box slightly tricky to use so be sure to practice a few times so your hungry kid doesn't have to ask the poor lunch ladies for help before he can dig into his carrot sticks.

And when it comes to packing green lunches, don't forget about the silverware. Plastic spoons are a no-no at my son's preschool so I used to pack my regular silverware for him -- until I realized that he was throwing it in the garbage (wah!). The super adorable Light My Fire Spork Set is a perfect solution. These BPA-free utensils are designed with kids in mind -- and you won't freak if they accidentally throw them in the trash. 

Reuseit.com also carries another of my favorite lunch-time products -- the Wrap-n-Mat. The Wrap-n-Mat sandwich wrap and snack pouch are sturdy, easy-to-clean staples for kid's lunches. Plus, these items open up and work great as placemats (because goodness knows what lurks on the school lunch tables). I also noticed that Wrap-n-Mat sandwich wraps are available at The Kids' Table when I was there last week (and they have the really cute green color).

When it comes to the food that you put in your kid's green lunch, you have lots of great local options as well. But I have one idea for you that I bet isn't on your weekly lunch menu -- organic baby food. Yes, seriously! Square One Organics is a fabulous organic baby food company started by a Chicago-area mom. I love her line -- so does my baby and my six year-old daughter.

Square One Organics makes an absolutely delicious frozen mango puree that my daughter frequently requests in her lunch. And I don't blame her. I've sampled the mango puree myself and it is a delicious alternative to the typical yogurt or applesauce side in the lunch bag. The product comes frozen so you just defrost an individual container the night before and pop it in your child's lunch bag in the morning. You can purchase 12-packs from the website or pick up two-packs of Square One products at Jewel, Whole Foods, and Peapod (just to mention a few local retailers).

One note when it comes to waste: Square One Organics products come in small plastic containers -- but that doesn't mean that they should go in the trash. I tell my daughter to put the small plastic container back in her lunch box when she is finished and I reuse them at home to hold small amounts of paint for kiddie craft projects. 

Check out the photo gallery for pictures of the items mentioned in this post

Know of other local companies making great products for green school lunches? Let other Chicago-area parents know about them in the comments. The more the merrier!

Disclosure: Some of the companies mentioned in this post provided
samples of their products to me at no cost so that I could check them out to make sure that really were great before I recommended
them to you.

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